General overview and LCSH

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is the main thesaurus for subject access in bibliographic records used by most libraries. It is very comprehensive and is continually being updated and added to. Unfortunately, its not always updated quickly or sufficiently to remove outdated, offensive, or problematic terms. There are also political influences and concerns surrounding the updating/changing of some terms that may leave a term unchanged or lead to a change that is not the most appropriate terminology for descriptive access. There are several ways to deal with the issues presented by LCSH terms that are discussed in the sections below, such as use of established alternative vocabularies, proposing changes or new headings to the LCSH, and local catalog views for established terms in limited cases. 

LCSH should be the first and main source for subject headings and if terms are offensive, outdated, inaccurate, or not specific enough other established alternative thesauri should be used in their place or to supplement them. Only alternative vocabularies with source codes assigned by the Library of Congress should be used. Generally, these vocabularies are specialized to describe a specific subject area and are not comprehensive.  Alternative vocabularies do not have facets so are also limited in their use for descriptive cataloging and should generally be seen as supplementary to LCSH when faceted headings are needed/desired. The use of locally created subject headings is NOT recommended. The purpose of controlled vocabularies and established thesauri is to maintain uniformity of description across libraries. This is especially important for libraries who use and contribute to shared catalogs, such as OCLC and WorldCat. This allows for collocation of like materials when searching, since materials about the same subjects are described using the same language. It also allows for several authority control processes that maintain headings by updated/flipping terms when changes occur to the term's authority file. When a term is updated or changed with the LCSH, since the terms are all coded and should be controlled in OCLC Connexion, they are able to run processes to update all the terms in the records in most cases (split headings are an exception). There are also processes that run in local catalogs to update the terms once they have been changed in LCSH.

Something to be aware of is that although terms may be changed they could still be under broader terms (550s) that are offensive/wrong due to the LC Classification scheme and subject trees. Example: Sadomasochism is under the broader term Psychosexual disorders, so while that term is not added to a record by a cataloger, currently Primo is "enhancing" records in HOLLIS to display "other search terms" based on the subject trees and will show "Psychosexual disorders." See this record in Hollis as an example: This is likely a useful enhancement in a lot of cases, but in some cases will lead to offensive terms being displayed.

Submitting LCSH terms for revision

Within Harvard Library the SACO Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Antiracism Task Group (SACO EDIBA Task Group) "is charged with reviewing controlled terms governed by the Library of Congress Subject Authority Cooperative Program (SACO) for possible revision in light of EDIBA principles." SACO EDIBA’s wiki page tracks headings under consideration and includes a form for staff to submit terms for the group to review. They ask for the following information with each submission: the existing term, a proposed preferred term, the MMS ID of the corresponding bibliographic record in Alma, and references to any related sources and/or justification/reasoning for the change.  

Faculty, students and all other patrons who find offensive LCSH terms, or who have suggestions for new terms according to these principles, can send their request in through the HOLLIS Feedback link.  More information on this process may be found under "How do I report an offensive term found in Hollis?" at the Ask a Librarian FAQ page.

There are also some long-standing groups working with the Library of Congress Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC) to make the LCSH more inclusive and comprehensive in areas that need more terms for fuller access.

African American Subject Funnel Project (@SACO):

Information on the history of the funnel:

Action for local changes at Harvard Library

To deal with LC's reluctance to change subject headings related to undocumented immigrants, the Harvard Library "Change the Subject" Task Group implemented a local solution in January 2021 to remap any headings with "aliens" to display as "noncitizens" and the heading "illegal aliens" to display as "undocumented immigrants." This solution was reversed in 2022 after LC changed the heading involved. However, remapping – where we can display more inclusive terms to the public while allowing for LCSH to live in the background – could be a potential temporary solution to future problematic headings. Information on Harvard's work with subject headings related to undocumented immigrants and its implementation can be found here: Best practice for LCSH headings that use "illegal" or "alien" to refer to people

Alternative vocabularies and thesauri

HOLLIS now displays (indexed and faceted) subject headings from the African Studies Thesaurus, Homosaurus, and First Nations House of Learning.

African Studies Thesaurus

From their website: "The African Studies Thesaurus is a structured list of English terms covering the broad field of African studies, with an emphasis on the social sciences and humanities. It contains 13419 terms (5588 descriptors or preferred terms and 7831 non-descriptors directing the user to a descriptor) and includes the names of African countries and regions, almost 1000 ethnic groups, some 500 African languages, more than 340 traditional polities and about 170 political parties. The thesaurus was developed by the Library, Documentation and Information Department of the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL), Leiden University Library, Leiden, Netherlands, to facilitate subject access to the ASCL library collection. It reflects the main subject areas of the ASCL library collection and is directly linked to the library's online catalogue."

African Studies Thesaurus terms are NOT faceted, so you are only able to assign general headings using it. Because of this it is best to use this vocabulary as a supplement to the LCSH since it is more robust and faceted when you are looking for more complex structured headings with $$v $$x $$y and $$z fields.

To use this vocabulary in the 650 subject field use a second indicator of 7 and add a subfield 2 with the source code ascl after the term

Examples of usage:

650_7 $$a enslaved people. $$2 ascl 

650_7 $$a enslaved women $$2 ascl

Since the LC term available is currently Slaves, it is preferable to use the African Studies term of enslaved people. The thesaurus also has the term enslaved women, while LC's term is Women slaves.

Homosaurus: An International LGBTQ+ Linked Data Vocabulary

From their website "The Homosaurus is an international linked data vocabulary of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) terms. This vocabulary is intended to function as a companion to broad subject term vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions are encouraged to use the Homosaurus to support LGBTQ research by enhancing the discoverability of their LGBTQ resources."

Homosaurus terms are NOT faceted, so you are only able to assign general headings using it. Because of this it is best to use this vocabulary as a supplement to the LCSH since it is more robust and faceted when you are looking for more complex structured headings with $$v $$x $$y and $$z fields. In addition to terms related to gender and sexual orientation, the thesaurus has many terms related to sex and sexuality that are not represented in LCSH and are very useful for describing Schlesinger Library's recently acquired sex positive collections and materials. For example, there is no term in LC for Tantric sex, but there is one in the Homosaurus.

To use this vocabulary in either the 650 subject or 655 genre fields use a second indicator of 7 and add a subfield 2 with the source code homoit after the term

Examples of usage:

Subject example: 650_7 $$a Non-binary people. $$2 homoit

The LC term of Gender-nonconforming people is an umbrella term that subsumes both Non-binary people and Genderqueer people, where Homosaurus has separated these terms out so a more specific term can be used.

Genre example: 655_7 $$a LGBTQ+ autobiographies. $$2 homoit

While the available LC term of Autobiographies provides a very general description and should be included in the record, the Homosaurus term is more specific and provides visibility of LGBTQ+ materials in the catalog for users to discovery.

First Nations House of Learning 650_7 $$a First nations. $$2 fnhl 

From their website: "X̱wi7x̱wa Library uses First Nations House of Learning (FNHL) subject headings developed at UBC in an effort to better reflect Indigenous Peoples’ self-identities, modes of understanding, and traditional knowledge. The FNHL controlled vocabulary is currently in development. FNHL subject headings follow a standard order of [topic]-[subtopic]-[place]-[chronology]."

This appears to not actually be available for use beyond UBC Xwi7xwa library currently. You may see these headings on bibs in Connexion, but for now won't be able to add them to records yourself. See for more details on this vocabulary.

Relevant articles

The language of cataloguing: deconstructing and decolonizing systems of organization in libraries:

The old and the prudish: an examination of sex, sexuality, and queerness in Library of Congress Classification:

Three decades since prejudices and antipathies: a study of changes in the Library of Congress Subject Headings:

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